Venezuela is one of earth’s 18 megadiverse countries, home to many rare and unique species. It’s little known, but in 2016 Nicolás Maduro began to threaten that by designating around 112,000 square kilometres of pristine tropical rain forest as a mining belt.
The ‘Orinoco Mining Arc’ is home to 198 indigenous communities, jaguars, giant anteaters, 850 bird species, and a great many more species. All are now threatened by mining activity.
This plan was originally conceived by Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez. As Venezuela’s oil industry slowly collapsed from the pressures of corruption and mismanagement, the regime sought alternative sources of funding. Venezuela is extremely rich in natural resources like gold, nickel, iron ore, diamonds, alumina, and coal, so mining was an attractive option for the cash-strapped regime. The environmental damage of mining operations was completely disregarded, indeed no environmental impact assessment was ever done.
Venezuela’s National Assembly explicitly voted against the plan, making the activity unconstitutional and illegal. Although Maduro proposed that the mining would be done by state enterprises in partnership with foreign investors, the latter have understandably declined to participate. In reality, criminal gangs and Colombian guerrilla groups carry out the mining under the protection of the Venezuelan military.
Dutch journalist Bram Ebus was financed by the Pulitzer Centre to investigate. He concluded that the official government policy was meant to “put a legal jacket on illegal mining called Arco Minero... run by illegal armed troops and state forces.” The International Crisis Group has reported that top military officers in Amazonas state receive $800,000 each in bribes each month to facilitate the illegal mining. This explains both why military postings in the region are so popular and why some officers are keen to perpetuate the Maduro dictatorship.
The subsoil and rivers have been heavily polluted by the mercury used in the mills to extract gold from soil. The effects on the indigenous populations have been very severe. A 2017 survey found that indigenous people living along the Guaina, Inirida and Atabapo rivers had 60 times the maximum recommended level of mercury in their blood. 92 percent of the indigenous women surveyed in the Caura river basin had mercury levels above WHO limits and 37 percent of Ye’kuana and Sanema people had childbirth problems due to mercury. This has led to some children being born with missing limbs.
The impact of mercury runoff on aquatic life can be felt throughout the Orinoco basin. Latin American scientists have highlighted the “evidence of the bioaccumulation of these toxins in fish and shellfish sampled thousands of kilometres away from the nearest mine”, and warned of the “larger regional threat” to the South-eastern Caribbean in particular.
Because the Chavistas have destroyed all independent institutions and centralised all power, there are no environmental regulatory agencies in Venezuela to prevent or limit the destruction of the Orinoco basin. Nor are the proceeds from the mining being used for any socially useful purpose. According to Ebus, “It’s stolen, absolutely stolen. The Government is not interested in cash for the good of the country. It is a kleptocracy. They are going to be thieving what’s left until they’re not in power anymore.”
This environmental spoilage will continue as long as Maduro and his cronies remain in power. The international community has turned a blind eye to years of human rights abuses and totalitarianism, and it seems determined to also ignore environmental abuse. Greenpeace and the WWF’s UK websites have only one search result apiece for Venezuela, a staggering lack of coverage of the despoliation of one of the precious few megadiverse countries on earth. It will be a tragedy of enormous proportions if Maduro is allowed to continue the environmental destruction of this precious global resource.
More information on the Venezuela Campaign can be found on their website.